Recently, I began training in judo. As with getting into anything new, I tend to totally embrace it if I immediately feel revived in some way, in any way. With judo, I am always sore, but feel better, physically and mentally. I feel as though I am progressing myself. It’s a work out in so many ways. Obviously the physical aspects of it, but with any traditional martial art it’s a huge mental workout where patience is key in honing your technique. At the end of the day a skilled judoka focuses on technique, not strength. In mastering or crafting these abilities one needs to have the ability to persevere.
Perseverance is what Johnnie To’s Yau Doh Lung Fu Bong (Throw Down)is out to exemplify. A wonderfully crafted action/dramedy based around the world of judo. It had been years since I had last watched this charming film and considering my newly found fondness and immersion into judo, I felt it was appropriate to revisit a movie I—at the time not knowing more than the average White-American male knows about judo—remember enjoying a lot. Well, maybe a little more, because I have always admired Asian culture. The story centers around several main characters, who are all developed very nicely and contrast each other while still maintaining a common theme of perseverance. The first character we are introduced to is Tony played by the charming Aaron Kwok. His introduction is a great icebreaker, as an easily likable, generally honorable kind of person who possesses a great skill in judo. As with every character in Yau Doh Lung Fu Bong, they’re all working toward their own, one ideal.
There’s not much history given about Tony, but with his personality on display and through his actions, you really get a sense of his character. Tony loves to challenge others who know judo to, not only test his skills, but naturally better them. He’s a very optimistic realist, who also happens to play a killer saxophone and can be kind of cocky. Tony travels to challenge Sze-To Bo—played in a spacy, stumblingly clumsy glob of deadpan by Louis Koo—is a once world-renowned gold-medal winning judo prodigy.
Explained through interactions with characters and the dialogue, amidst his career Sze-To disappeared from the world of judo. This apparently stunned the world and would be opponents waiting to be honored to fight him. Nowadays, Sze-To is a lounge owner, a drunk, and a gambling-addict, in-debt with the investors of his bar. Sze-To also couldn’t be any further away from judo. He’s on an entirely different density, hardly acknowledging the world around him. He’s barely able to even form complete sentences. He posts an ad for a new female lounge singer. That’s where Mona, played by the very talented and distractingly pretty Cherrie In, is introduced.
A clutter of suitcases, several bags of clothes and miscellaneous personal items plummet to a concrete street as Mona is shoved out of the door forcefully by her now ex-landlord. Screaming in Cantonese, the middle-aged woman has erupted into an onslaught of insults at Mona. She’s not paid rent, she’s lied about paying rent, and she simply can’t pay rent. Coming to a standstill from being pushed out of her apartment, she slurps ramen noodles from a red bowl, blankly staring at the yelling lady with an immeasurable cuteness—an introduction that makes so much more of an impact in hindsight than at first. We’re shown that Mona is a fully-grown adult with youthful optimism and a dream of becoming a famous performer. Later it is explained that she’s been at it for a while, failing in Taiwan, Taipai, and now in Hong Kong—even desperate enough to make it big with a stint in the adult movie industry. Through the “Lounge Singer Wanted For Hire” ad posting, she forces herself into the arms of the drunkard, Sze-To, whilst he is being pursued to spar by Tony.
These three central characters give way to Yau Doh Lung Fu Bong’s central theme:Life’s unpredictability lends us the opportunity to live for today, to reach the goal of our tomorrow, and the prescription should be optimism even through the hard times. The composition of the action shots is purely poetic. Everyone brawls with judo, the actors performing their own stunts sans padding. I’m talking directly to the pavement in a lot of shots. This is confirmed through several interviews with cast and crew.
The lighting stylized; when a scene is warm, it’s a beautiful gold and platinum ice for the cold-lit shots. Everything is shot with a spotlight-like strategy. It draws your attention to only the things the director wants you to see—gorgeous stuff, truly! There is a certain romance to the movie, though it’s platonic; a self-described ode to Akira Kurosawa’s 1943 classic, Sanshiro Sugata. In a way, Tony and Mona serve as the two missing parts that used to make Sze-To the judo master he once was. They inadvertently restore him back to his whole self while forming a touching friendship as he comes out of his foggy slump.
There are more characters—a lot more and yet the film lacks a villain. I don’t want to spoil all the little details, so I’m leaving a ton out, but this movie is full of fun, sad, intense and poetic montages that build each character. The writing is witty and the dialog is top notch, all driven by a quirky soundtrack. If you don’t know about Johnnie To and his soundtracks you’re missing out. One of my favorite soundtracks is another movie of his called Sparrow. Both are fun, light-hearted scores that deliver sounds, lilts, and instrumentation that almost resemble a cartoon. It’s definitely an acquired taste, but if you watch Yau Doh Lung Fu Bong and Sparrow and can see the genius in it. Overall, Yau Doh Lung Fu Bong moves to a beat all it’s own. At the end of the day, this is a work of a visionary who has a great cast and crew to give a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into this project. For me, as a filmmaker, I can smell and taste it and it’s delicious.